All about relieving suffering? Think again

In her second reading speech introducing the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017, Victorian Minister for Health, Jill Hennessy, opened with a declaration that “Far too many Victorians have suffered too much and for too long at the end of their lives”.

She made much of the evidence from the Coroner to the End of Life Choices Inquiry, falsely claiming that “the Coroner indicated that one terminally-ill Victorian was taking their life each week”. However, a careful scrutiny of the actual evidence from the Coroner’s Court shows that this claim is exaggerated as at least half of those in the cohort studied were definitely NOT terminally ill and so would not be legible for access to assisted suicide under the Bill.

Minister Hennessy proposes in effect that the only thing that will be offered to Victorians distressed by deteriorating physical health to prevent them dying horrible deaths alone by suicide is for the State of Victoria to issue them with an assisted suicide permit so they can pick up a bottle of lethal drugs to take home - and still die a lonely death by suicide, perhaps with horrible complications.

The Minister for Health chooses to ignore the expert evidence from Palliative Care Victoria, the warnings from three former Victorian AMA Presidents, the letter from 101 oncologists, and many others that the proper response to evidence that some Victorians are suffering unacceptably at the end of life is to provide funding to close the identified gaps in the equitable provision of palliative care across all sectors in Victoria.

The detailed processes proposed by the Bill do nothing to ensure that assisted suicide or euthanasia does not become a “go to” option instead of ensuring every Victorian is readily able to access gold standard palliative care.

Despite it being well known that many doctors who have not undergone specialist training in palliative care are quite ignorant of what modern palliative care can do the Bill simply requires the two doctors assessing a person’s request for assisted suicide or euthanasia to “inform the person about palliative care options and the likely outcomes of that care”. There is NO requirement that either doctor have the necessary training, experience or knowledge to ensure that the person is properly informed about modern palliative care.

It is surely irresponsible not to actually refer a person, who under the Bill’s requirements is supposedly experiencing suffering “that cannot be relieved”, to a palliative care specialist for a full and thorough palliative care assessment.

The Bill simply adopts a checklist, tick a box approach. Somehow the Minister is imagining that merely requiring assessing doctors to mention palliative care is sufficient to ensure that people “will never turn to” assisted suicide or euthanasia because they have not been provided with palliative care.

The Minister also suggests that for some people simply being prescribed the lethal drugs and having them to hand will be sufficient to give them a “greater sense of control”. This alleged placebo affect raises serious doubts about the major premise of the Bill – that assisted suicide or euthanasia is necessary to end the suffering of some Victorians. Apparently a sugar tablet labelled POISON might work just as well.